The Temple of Heaven was absolutely astounding. Built in 1420, the rounded structure, which was made entirely out of wood with not a single nail, was designed by the Ming Dynasty for heavenly sacrifices. The temple was circular, painted in many hues of bright paint, and featured incredible detailing on every panel. The round temple situated on the square piece of ground represented to the Chinese heaven and earth. We learned that just as in the Forbidden City, only those at the top of the hierarchy could enter the Temple, and the Emperor led the ceremonies. With many buildings in a large park-like area, the Temple of Heaven was much more than a place of worship and sacrifice. Almost as interesting as the temple itself were the legions of the elderly Chinese performing calisthenics, practicing tai-chi, or dancing; while Eric and Zeena went to dance with one of the many groups whose music filled the air, Hayley made a friend of a cheerful old man who was insisting that she take a picture of a “very beautiful” kite. Of special note, according to our guide, were the aged trees, some over 500 years old. After we all regrouped, Ms. Smith reminded us that the long walkways, where hundreds of older Beijing residents were playing cards, dominoes or chess, knitting, or just talking, were originally used to transport sacrificed carcasses to the Temple of Heaven. As we followed the long walkway to the bus, the symmetry and symbolism of the entry gates emphasized the ceremonial and hierarchical features of this very old society.
After lunch we visited the Summer Palace, whose most famous resident was the Dragon Empress. The Dragon Empress, the last Chinese empress who dominated in the last of the 19th century and died in 1908 one day after her son was poisoned, was known for her anti-Western views and for the great power which she held under the throne of Qing Emperor Guangxu. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Summer Palace (located in the northwest section of metropolitan Beijing) was mainly used as by the emperor during the summer as a refuge from the intense heat. The Summer Place only exists because of the Dragon Empress. The location was originally going to be used as a navel base; however, she thought a summer home more necessary. This is evidence of the growing corruption of Imperial China. The palace itself was absolutely mesmerizing. It features The Long Corridor that runs alongside the lake, a structure that has appeared in the Guinness Book of World records as the longest hallway, and longest art gallery. The sides of the hall are decorated with traditional Chinese patterns and hundreds of painted scenes from famous stories. At the end of the walkway, resting in the lake, was a marble boat weighing hundreds of tons and sporting multiple green and blue stained glass window and two paddle-wheels, another example of ostentatious spending on items of no use in modernizing China or helping the millions of people in poverty.
Later that night, we had dinner with journalist Lijia Zhang. As an international writer and scholar, she shared with us the story of her life, going to work–at her mother’s insistence– in a state-owned-factory at the age of 16 and working there for ten years, even as she learned English and widened her knowledge of the problems within the 1970s-1980s Chinese system. As we asked questions, we learned that she had organized a factory protest at the same time as the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, and that she believes the lack of interest in politics of China’s youth is a growing topic of interest that will shape the country’s future. In speaking of the limits on human rights in China, she noted “the cage is so much larger now” [than before the reform movement] that ignoring its existence is easy for most people. The whole experience really tied together what we had studied so far during the trip. Her book, ironically entitled Socialism is Great, may be required reading for next year’s Comparative Politics class as a way to introduce the massive changes in late 20th century China.